Mozart Went Down to Georgia

Article excerpt

"Now don't you feel smarter already?"

--Governor Zell Miller to the Georgia legislature after listening to a portion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

"We raise corn, hell, and fiddlers," one feisty old-time fiddler told a newspaper reporter in 1920, "and we had a pretty good crop this year, all around." Since its inception, we've tried to make "Up Beat Down South" a place where such infectious enthusiasm for music comes to life, and to suggest the energy, richness, and breadth of Southern music-making. But even if inclusion is the dominant theme running through a column still in its brash youth, recent events in two southern states remind us that there are powerful cultural urges that resist placing all musical forms on equal footing.

In the last two years, legislatures in Georgia and Florida have passed laws designed to ensure that all new-born infants gain the benefits of what has become known as "the Mozart Effect." Based on a smattering of preliminary scientific studies, and on the general public's seemingly infinite faith in classical music's intellectual and moral stature, "the Mozart Effect" posits that listening to classical music speeds a child's neurological development. As a corollary, the public accepts that the "popular" music it listens to daily has little intellectual or artistic value. There is no "Hank Williams Effect," for instance, that promises to make babies smarter or better at math.

The movement to stoke babies' cerebral development with music received its biggest publicity boost in 1998. In his January budget address to the joint session of the House and Senate, Georgia's then-Governor Zell Miller asked approval for $105,000 to provide each of the state's estimated 100,000 newborns with a tape or CD. "Research shows that reading to an infant, talking with an infant, and especially having that infant listen to soothing music helps those trillions of brain connections to develop, especially ones dealing with spatial temporal reasoning," he explained. Better music for all kids would give them a head start in the "temporal reasoning that underlies math and engineering and even chess." After all, Miller recalled of his youth in the north Georgia mountains, "musicians were folks that not only could play a fiddle, but they also were good mechanics." Yet rather than demonstrate music's power by playing "Back Step Cindy," "Devil in the Pea Patch," or any of the fiddle tunes that inspired him as a youngster, he played a portion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "Now don't you feel smarter already?" he asked. The proposal ignited a firestorm of debate on both sides of the issue. Yet the controversy centered not so much on Miller's conclusions or on the scientific foundations of his assertions, but on the cost. Many legislators barked that this was yet another "big government" spending program. Sony Corporation stepped into the scuffle and volunteered to underwrite the requested $ 105,000, ostensibly because they had a large factory in Georgia, but also because infant brains would absorb brand-name loyalty along with Mozart.

Sony set to work and came up with a CD titled Build Your Baby's Brain Through the Power of Music. The title is fairly self-explanatory, except the part about music. Only classical selections made the cut, and even those were restricted to the milder works of Mozart, Pachelbel, Beethoven, Handel, Schubert, and Vivaldi. Of necessity, Sony had to make arbitrary decisions about what should be included and excluded. Yet nowhere on the CD could infants build their brains to the grooves of other masters like Etta James, Elvis Presley, Boozoo Chavis, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, George Jones, Janis Joplin, Santiago Jimenez, Fiddlin' John Carson, Bessie Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Monroe, or Patty Loveless. The CD'S narrow artistic focus reflected a widespread belief that only classical music can make babies smarter. When asked why the CD for Georgia babies didn't include any of the country and bluegrass artists he loved, Zell Miller sheepishly explained that "with my likes and dislikes I don't want to be the one that picks these numbers. …